White Pearl (Queensland Theatre)
Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre
June 17 – 10 July
Anchuli Felicia King’s “White Pearl” is set in Singapore, where women from across Asia are working under bright fluorescent white lighting (Lighting Designer Damien Cooper) in the authentically-contemporary open-plan boardroom of Clearday cosmetics (Design by Jeremy Allen). Under the leadership of Indian born, but British educated, Priya Singh (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash), the high-flying team needs to hastily draft a statement in response to an emerging catastrophe after a mysterious French social media account has leaked their forthcoming television advertisement. The White Pearl product in question promises clear and bright inner beauty along with its skin whitening claims, resulting in an advertisement with not just cultural appropriation, but outright racism in its visuals as much as its troublesome messaging.
What begins with Priya rallying the group onto the same page soon turns from squabble to scramble, appropriation of blame and demand for answers. Whoever is truly at fault isn’t particularly important, as even if blame can be attributed to the advertising agency, someone is getting fired. And as the most obvious scapegoat, having signed off on the ad, Xiao Chen (Lin Yin) is feeling nervous, so much so that she spends much of the time crying on the toilet floor.
Flashback to a year earlier when timid Japanese office manager recruit Ruki Minami (Mayu Iwasaki) joins the company… a young chill and successful brand created as an alternative to Asian corporate culture. With a confident energy in sharp contrast to the cynicism of the opening scenes, Pirya outlines the company’s democratic approach befitting what she describes as a family-like team. As they discuss aspects to a proposed reframing of product branding with a uniform, universal message to transcend local culturally-specific markets, the scene serves to sharpen audience perceptions of the characters and serves as a real highlight of the skill of Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King. So talented is the ensemble of actors in this realisation, that when duologes occur often in toilet cubicles side of stage, we spend them looking forward to scenes when the group is reunited. Indeed, the B-story of spoiled Thai-American beiress Built Suttikul’s (Nicole Milinkovic) attempts to disentangle herself from a failed relationships with Marcel Benoit (Matthew Pearce) sometimes seems almost unnecessary.
The Bille Brown stage space for this production is relatively small, but under Priscilla Jackman’s dynamic direction things happen within it at a sometimes chaotic speed, with its transitions complemented by top-of-stage screen projections moving from an advertising campaign billboard to its progression of clicks into the millions as the controversy goes viral from YouTube to Facebook to Buzzfeed, and snippets of the all-too-familiar rhetoric of social media commentary that accompanies this. The most confronting statements, however, come from those on stage through matter-of-fact discussion of what constitutes a slur and if it really is that simple, as consideration is given to reactions in the West comparative to the product’s customer base of Asian women to whom they are selling the ideal of whiteness.
The resulting discussion of Asianness and discrimination within the continent’s distinct cultures and completely different countries further layers the work’s nuanced approach to its themes. A lot of “White Pearl” it seems is to do with faces… faces desired to be shown as well as about-faces, two-faced tactics and the associated implications of appearance versus reality. Also themes of globalisation, toxic corporate culture and what professionalism means make for a very modern take on the modern world, presented by a diverse and talented cast.
Part of the script’s appeal is its clever shift of audience sensibilities though switching villains. At first we are shocked when matter-of-fact South Korean chemical consultant Soo Jin Park (Deborah An) tells things as they are to her from an anthropological perspective. Later, however, after earlier hints at her capacity for overreaction, self-proclaimed lateral thinker Priya increases the extremes of her language to rage at and mock the highly-strung and emotional Chen, before unravelling as Park deepens the crisis. There is balance not just in this transfer of the show’s provocation, but in inclusion of the comic relief that comes from Cheryl Ho as Sunny Lee, Priya’s Chinese-Singaporean offsider. Amid a stellar cast, she steals every scene with her hip-hop swagger and unfiltered Singlish sass, inhabiting her comedy not just with nuanced delivery and tension-breaking timing, but subtle physicality.
With its sometime challenging subject matter “White Pearl’s” satire will not be a work for everyone and the production comes with warning that the play contains strong language, adult themes, sexual references and discussions of race and culture in its content that may be confronting to some audience members. However, these complexities are also the things that make it such a compelling and challenging gem of production, providing another perspective of both the complications of modern life and representation of what constitutes a modern Australian play.
Photos c/o – Philip Erbacher